The Jive and the Flip Side

The Helsinki School started as a gallerist’s ambitious idea, became a huge commercial success, and put Finland on the international art map. But at what cost?

Elina Brotherus, Fenêtre aux Tuyas (from the series: Villa Empain), 2018. © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects.

For a quarter of a century, Timothy Persons has presided with grey eminence over the photography department at what is known today as Aalto-University in Helsinki. Occasionally he is flown in from Berlin to lecture new students on his views concerning the realities of the art world. I experienced this myself as a student at the school in the 2010s. In the meantime, he familiarises himself with the portfolios of the young artists and chooses potential future members for the group of photographers that he has successfully marketed at international art-fairs and his own gallery Persons Projects in Berlin under the name Helsinki School. For artists who do not follow his carefully mapped-out plan, the halcyon days will not last. Membership is a vague notion in the Helsinki School.

New Perspectives Through Photography – 25 years of the Helsinki School
Helsingfors Konsthall, Helsinki

What binds the Helsinki School is conceptualism. Persons’s photographers don’t take pictures, they make them. The idea of the deciding moment has no relevance. Everything is about thought and the complex of problems concerning documentary-seated photography are absent. Persons is a great admirer of J. M. W. Turner, and his interest in light and aesthetics differs from the still lingering norm of photographic art – with its hard-as-bone focus on visual wow factor. The flip side is a sense of shallowness in the visually constructed and apolitical images, and the intellectual aspect attributed to frequently recurring idea-based abstractions and personal projects at times feels forced. In that way, the Helsinki School can also be scrutinised for mainly pumping out glossy pictures skilfully presented to speculators at Paris Photo. But underestimating or dismissing its influence would be foolish. With the Helsinki School, Persons has put Finland on the art world map, but he has also made it his territory. 

Taking over Kunsthalle Helsinki on the occasion of the Helsinki School’s 25th anniversary, this exhibition does not rely on the greatness of times gone by, or the international praise lavished on the school in the early 2000s. Back then, member Elina Brotherus established herself as one of the great stars of European photography with her bold self-portraits. Brotherus is still associated with the school, and her presence in the exhibition, which is deftly and skilfully curated by Persons’ wife Asia Zak-Persons, is self-evident. However, her breakthrough series Suite françaises (French suite, 1999) is conspicuous in its absence, which, in a way, sums up the whole exhibition. New Perspectives Through Photography – 25 years of the Helsinki School is neither a historical survey nor a collection of greatest hits. It is fresh, brave, and even a bit cocky to celebrate an anniversary by focusing on the here and now. The lion’s share of the works on view were made during 2020 and are shown here for the first time.

 Jyrki Parantainen, Fire Nr 14. (13.6.1996, Haapsalu, Estonia), 1996.

Time is the pillar of photographic art, and is often viewed with Barthesian melancholy as the ever-present theme of figurative photography. “This photograph is my proof […] It did happen,” as Duane Michaels so heartbreakingly puts it in his famous work from 1967. The artists presented here favour this theme too (albeit in a conceptual and distant manner), and time is the unifying idea in the first gallery. Neither Persons nor Zak-Persons make any distinction between artists who utilise archival materials and artists with newly produced images, and it is exactly the recurring interest in time and history that ties this motley collection together. 

The exhibition begins with an older work that contributed to the early success of the Helsinki School: Jyrki Parantainen’s Fire Nr 14. (13.6.1996, Haapsalu, Estonia) (1996) represents the artist’s slightly neglected and wild photographs of burning interiors. As an opening image, it is brilliant, loaded with meaning and symbols. The picture plane is mostly engulfed in flames, but in the middle is a doorway through which a room untouched by fire is visible. This second room is lit by pale sunlight, and on its ragged and worn wallpaper are nailed some old pictures, below which a red alarm clock stands on a low table. In the foreground, the interior is already blackened and dead. Soon, the rest of the house will perish too, and with it all the memories contained in the deserted objects. Parantainen’s work gets to represent the Helsinki School as a phoenix. It is bombastic and fully in line with the project’s self-image.

Aino Kannisto, Untitled (woman in bath), archival pigment print, 90 x 135 cm, 2015. © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects.

Nearby, the work of Mikko Rikala, Jorma Puranen, Noora Sandgren, and Niina Vatanen, are put in beautiful dialog with each other. Eeva Karhu’s blurred Turner-inspired views are also lifted by the context given by Zak-Persons. It is rather unfortunate that the first gallery by far is the strongest, since it throws the entire exhibition off-balance. The following galleries are more fragmented, but then again the intention is to present a plurality. Some Helsinki School artists do installations as well, but of the three included, it’s only one, Mikko Rikala’s By the Morning the Butterfly Was Gone (2021), that works. Ulla Jokisalo’s assemblage Spiegel (für Emmi) (Mirror [for Emmi], 2021), on the other hand, feels oddly unfinished. It comprises a ladder, an uncanny doll, empty shoes, and a mysterious old photograph. The psychoanalytical symbols are legion and all too obvious. Anni Leppälä has better success with her enigmatic, daring-to-be-soft photographs.  

When Persons brings new artists to his stable, he makes demands on the sharpness of their statements. But no such texts are included here, which at times becomes a potential barrier between work and viewer. Some concepts do not demand keys to be unlocked, but others remain relatively mute and what makes them meaningful does not always fully emerge. Considering the country’s history, Tiina Itkonen’s typological mosaic of Greenlandic houses feels difficult without contextualisation. Likewise, Nelli Palomäki’s picture-mosaic Hållen (Susi och Ylva) [Holds (Susi and Ylva), 2021] would have reached out better if accompanied by further work from the same series. This is something entirely different from the classic black-and-white photographs that Palomäki is known for, and shown alone its content is reduced to the analogue process. The end result lies very close to Sally Mann’s ambrotypes, which are also often presented in a similar grid. 

Eeva Karhu, Path (seasons) Spring 3, pigment print, framed, 100 x 160 cm, 2017. © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects.

The exhibition ends with a screen showing interviews with seven of the participating artists. These are very important for the whole, since they present the differing methods of the Helsinki School in an accessible way. Hilla Kurki especially manages to convey all the thought and processing that lies behind her stripped-down monochrome self-portraits. Here, the concept is literally a matter of life, and the way Kurki treats the passing of her sister is both unflinching and exceptional.

New Perspectives Through Photography – 25 years of the Helsinki School is a multifaceted whole, and that is important considering how one-sided the school can appear sometimes. For someone who has followed the Helsinki School, as I have done, it is easy to discern how many from the younger generation adapt their artistic practices according to Persons’s taste; conceptual thinking and stripped-down imagery do not just spontaneously sprout upon studying at Aalto University. This can, among other things, be detected in recurring visual devices – for example, in the lines and geometric patterns sketched on top of pictures. But what happens behind the scenes, and how the balance of power between artist and gallerist works, might be a separate question. Be that as it may, this is an important exhibition and a strong case for conceptual photography.

New Perspectives Through Photography – 25 years of the Helsinki School, installation view from Helsinki Kunsthalle. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger.